I have entered my retro period, well, at least regarding the interior design of my home. I have been purchasing mid-century style furniture and tchatchkes to accord with the style of my cape-style house, which was built in 1952.
Though the mid-century of the 20th century C.E. was a horrible and oppressive time for me growing up as a gender non-conforming young person assigned male at birth, psychologically I am possibly returning to those times aesthetically to re-write the negative scripts circulating in my soul now as I have more control over the circumstances of my life.
Recently, I ordered 20 kitchen cabinet pulls of green glass Jadeite like those hung in the 1930s and 1940s, manufactured from the company Rowdytown. I was delighted when they arrived, and I tore open the box and counted all 20 of the shiny objects. I was distressed and very angry to find also in the box a four-page folded pamphlet asking on the front page, “Are you on the right road?”
It turned out to be a Christian proselytizing missive sent along with the product. It discussed the necessity of following the Ten Commandments and warned of the obligation of taking Jesus into one’s life:
“The good news is: He [God] provided a way for you to be forgiven. He sent HIs Son, Jesus Christ, to take your punishment…The day of salvation is today. Don’t put it off. Confess your sins to God…put your trust in Jesus to save you….”
Though some people believe they are offering a “gift” when they proselytize, I and many others take this as a form of bigotry, as a form of oppressive Christian hegemony.
Not so long ago, I received without my solicitation another unwanted “gift” in the mail. That time it was an entire book written specifically for Jews who needed to “know the right way.” I wrote the sender:
Hey Tom Cantor,
If Jesus were so wonderful, you wouldn’t have to promote him through the mail like a free sample of toothpaste or garbage bags. Instead, people would come flocking to him on their own by attraction. I’m a proud Queer Jew, unlike you, and I don’t need your Christian hegemonic propaganda in the form of your unsolicited book Changed. It’s too bad that your rabbi father was so abusive to you and to all five of his wives. But that was not because of his Judaism as you imply.
Warren (proud Queer Jew) Blumenfeld
That was my response to the author who shipped his book unsolicited to my home address based specifically and solely on my supposed Jewish last name. I assert this because when polling numerous neighbors on my street, none other received the book.
I have been targeted directly by Christian proselytizing for being Jewish many times in my life. Yes, we all have Jehovah’s Witnesses and young male Mormon missionaries ring our doorbells (and figuratively push our buttons), but many of us have been consciously targeted based on our secular or religious “otherness” as we stand outside the confines of Christianity.
In fact, I received a brochure in the mail sent to my home from a group calling itself “Messiah Today” out of Waverly Hall, Georgia, insisting that I must “see the truth,” in their terms.
The brochure went on to argue that, “If you reject Jesus, you do so not because the facts are lacking, but out of a choice not to believe the valid evidence. It is not so much that you cannot believe, but that you will not believe. Whether you will admit it or not, Jesus is the Messiah on whom your eternal destiny rests.”
This claim comprises the central thesis for the apparently oxymoronic “Jews for Jesus” or “Messianic Jewish” movement. Also calling themselves “completed Jews,” they claim that Jesus is the Messiah, which the remainder of us uninformed Jews need to understand, and that by accepting Jesus as the true Messiah and as our savior, we too can attain completion and salvation.
And yes, I was the only house on my street to have received this brochure.
Leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) came under intense scrutiny in 2012 when Elie Wiesel, renowned author and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who survived the German Holocaust, publicly requested that Republican presidential candidate and member of the Mormon Church, Willard Mitt Romney, advise his denomination immediately to abandon its practice of posthumously baptizing Jews, many of whom the Nazis ruthlessly tortured and killed during World War II.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Wiesel said that Romney “should speak to his own church and say they should stop” the practice. “I think it’s scandalous,” he continued. “Not only objectionable, it’s scandalous.”
The LDS Church often performs these baptisms by proxy for the supposed purpose of “saving” Mormon ancestors and members of other faith communities who did not receive baptism while alive. The Church does so without the authority of the deceased’s family members.
An Israeli genealogist discovered the practice back in 1994. While researching her family, she uncovered records in the LDS database that the Mormons had posthumously baptized her grandfather, a religiously devout Jew whom the Nazis murdered. She went on to discover that other prominent Jews suffered similar humiliation, including Anne Frank, Albert Einstein, the parents of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion.
Her discovery at the time provoked justifiable indignation within the Jewish community, and following arbitrations between Mormon and Jewish leaders, led to an agreement in 1995 in which the Mormon Church committed to stop all posthumous baptisms of Jews, excluding those who were direct ancestors of Mormons.
When the agreement ultimately collapsed, the two sides negotiated another settlement in 2010 that explicitly banned proxy baptisms of Holocaust survivors.
Elie Wiesel and other Jewish people claim, however, that Mormons circumvented all past agreements, a claim supported by Salt Lake City researcher and former LDS member, Helen Radkey, who discovered Wiesel’s name and other Holocaust survivors on the LDS database for proxy baptisms. Radkey reportedly found this information on a database open only to Mormons.
But what the Mormons have done, and the twisted reasoning behind it, is nothing new.
Throughout millennia up to the current era, some Christians have represented the Jewish religion — and by implication, the Jewish people — as an immature or intermediate developmental religious stage on the way to Christianity, the so-called advanced, mature faith, and the Jewish Bible as only a prelude to the eventual coming of Jesus and the Christian testaments.
Charles Darwin, in his pioneering book The Origin of Species, published in 1859, posited an evolutionary theory of plant and animal development. Though Darwin himself did not assert this, some of Darwin’s successors known as “Social Darwinists” extended his ideas to theorize that Jews and the Jewish religion were throwbacks to earlier stages of religious and human development, and even that Jews were not fully human.
Within Darwinian theory we find the concept of continuity and advancement, from animal to human, from savage to civilized. A supposed “Darwinian” model, published in the German magazine Der Schlemiel in 1904, depicted in a four-staged horizontal drawing how the underdeveloped immature Chanukah menorah, symbolizing Judaism, “evolved” ultimately into the highly developed mature Christmas tree, symbolizing Christianity (even though Christians appropriated the symbol of the lighted tree from Paganism).
Throughout the 1920s to the 1950s, Jews, as well as other groups, suffered from institutional restrictions in the United States. Many colleges, clubs, hotels, and boarding houses restricted Jewish entry. Signs often appeared on hotels and in hotel newspaper advertisements forthrightly announcing that Jews, people with tuberculosis, and dogs were not welcome.
Hitler and the Nazis used “racial arguments” as the cornerstone of their policies and considered Jews (and most people of color, including people of African descent, and also people with disabilities) as descendants from inferior “racial strands.” Hitler claimed that Germany lost World War I because of their internal enemies: the Jews, who had “polluted” the so-called “Aryan” race.
During the 1870s, some lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives attempted to pass a constitutional amendment acknowledging the supremacy of Christianity. Though the proposed amendment eventually failed, its intended purpose was to acknowledge the supposed supremacy of Jesus and of Christianity.
Delegates to the annual Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans in 1996 passed a resolution (“Resolution on Jewish Evangelism”) committing to put more energy and resources into converting Jews to Christianity.
The resolution read, in part:
“WHEREAS, There has been an organized effort on the part of some either to deny that Jewish people need to come to their Messiah, Jesus, to be saved;…BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, That we direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the gospel [of Jesus] to the Jewish people.”
Many Southern Baptists continue to believe, as do members of some other denominations, that Judaism remains an inadequate religion without Jesus as its central figure.
And who can forget the red meat flinging columnist and commentator Ann Coulter, who infamously declared on the cable CNBC show “The Big Idea” on October 11, 2007, hosted by Donny Deutsch (who is Jewish), that Jews need to be “perfected” by becoming Christians, and that America would be better off if everyone were Christian. A stunned Deutsch pressed Coulter further by asking, “We should just throw Judaism away and we should all be Christians?” “Yeah,” quipped Coulter, unfazed.
According to Ashkenazi (European-heritage) Jewish tradition, a newborn infant is named after a deceased relative. I had the good fortune of being named after my maternal great-grandfather, Wolf Mahler, an observant Jew, a good man whom the Nazis murdered along with many of my other family members in my ancestral village of Krosno, Poland.
The thought of anyone posthumously baptizing any member of my family, or anyone for that matter against their will brings up in me a sense of righteous indignation that knows no bounds. I find it unfathomable that any individual or denomination would manifest the unfettered audacity and chutzpah to engage in such cynical, offensive, and yes, oppressive practices and utterances in defense of their worldview and understanding of the Divine.
For me, this is no simple disagreement, but rather, a fight against oppression, and a fight for social justice. I will not permit any religious group to define me and other Jews, to deny us our right of self-definition and self-determination, and to deny us our integrity and our humanity by attempting to prevent us from maintaining our subjectivity, our agency, and our voice.
To Mormons and others, I say, while you may find the practice of baptism well and fine for yourselves, and also while you may conceive the practice of proxy baptism as offering some kind of gift from your perspective, speaking for myself, Keep your practices off Jewish bodies and off Jewish souls!
You need to curb your proselytizing dog-ma. We neither want nor need your so-called “saving.” Furthermore, to all others I declare, Jews have already been “perfected,” and we are “complete” as we are.
Though some religious denominations and individuals may continue in their attempts to define us, they will not succeed, for they are fighting a religious and cultural war they will ultimately lose. In the final analysis, their actions only bring disgrace upon themselves and upon their denominations.
The concept of “hegemony” coined by social theorist Antonio Gramsci relates to the ways in which the dominant group, in this case Christians in general and predominantly Protestants, successfully disseminate dominant social realities and social visions in a manner accepted as common sense, as “normal,” as universal—even though only an estimated 30% of the world’s inhabitants are Christian—and as representing part of the natural order.
In the service of hegemony is what is termed “discourse,” which includes the ideas, written expressions, theoretical foundations, and language of the dominant culture. These are implanted within networks of social and political control, described by philosopher and historian Michel Foucault as “regimes of truth,” which function to legitimize what can be said, who has the authority to speak and be heard, and what is authorized as true or as the truth.
The concept of oppression, then, constitutes more than the cruel and repressive actions of individuals upon others. It often involves an overarching system of differentials of social power and privilege by dominant groups over subordinated groups based on ascribed social identities or social group status. And this is not merely the case in societies ruled by coercive or tyrannical leaders, but also occurs even within the day-to-day practices of contemporary democratic societies.
This dominant group-controlled production and promotion of societal norms, “knowledge,” and ways of viewing “reality” maintains the marginality of other groups, and it denies people options in understanding multiple perspectives from which to construct meaning.
Based on Peggy McIntosh’s (1988) pioneering investigations of white and male privilege, we can, by analogy, understand Christian privilege as constituting a seemingly invisible, unearned, and largely unacknowledged array of benefits accorded to Christians, with which they often unconsciously walk through life as if effortlessly carrying a knapsack tossed over their shoulders.
This system of benefits confers dominance on Christians while subordinating members of other faith communities as well as non-believers. These systemic inequities are pervasive throughout society.
They are encoded into the individual’s consciousness and woven into the very fabric of our social institutions, resulting in a stratified social order, privileging dominant (“agent”) groups while restricting and disempowering subordinate (“target”) groups.
In keeping with McIntosh’s inventory outlining the manifestations of white privilege, authors have developed parallel lists summarizing overarching examples of Christian privilege As Clark et al (2002) assert:
[T]he fact remains that all Christians benefit from Christian privilege regardless of the way they express themselves as Christians in the same way that all White people benefit from White privilege (p. 12 of manuscript version).
As there is a spectrum of Christian denominations and traditions, so too is there a hierarchy or continuum of Christian privilege based on 1) historical factors, 2) numbers of practitioners, and 3) degrees of social power.
In this regard, in a United States context, though the gap in privilege between Christian denominations is apparently shrinking, white, mainline Protestant denominations may still have some greater degrees of Christian privilege, relative to some minority Christian denominations, for example, African American, Latinx, Asian American, Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Eastern and Greek Orthodox, adherents to Christian Science and to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and still in some quarters, to Catholics.
By “unpacking” the knapsack of privilege (whether Christian, white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, owning class, temporarily able bodied, English as first-language speakers, adult, and others) is to become aware and to develop critical consciousness of its existence and how it impacts the daily lives of both those with and those without this privilege.
Clark, C., Vargas, M. B., Schlosser, L. Z., & Alimo, C. (2002). Diversity initiatives in higher Education: It’s not just “Secret Santa” in December: Addressing educational and workplace climate issues linked to Christian Privilege. [Electronic version]. Multicultural Education, 10(2), 52-57.
McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.
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